Ok, who listened to President Obama's press conference last night discussing his first 100 days in office? If not, track down a transcript. First, despite the fact that the questions are scripted and it is not an open give and take forum, Obama is masterful at making one think it is an open and critical dialogue in which the best argument wins. His rhetoric appeals to anyone who finds reasonableness a virtue --- which should be anyone. Conservative pundits often point back to Reagan as the example of rhetorical master, but Reagan was a rhetorical master based on an ideological principle --- "Mr. Gorbachev Tear Down This Wall" or "Trust But Verify" when dealing with the "Evil Empire". Obama is a rhetorical master for the egg-head class. We want rigorous debate, we want all sides heard, we come at this with no ideological blinders on, but instead let good argument and evidence win the day. We listen hard, think even harder, and make up our minds based on reason and evidence. He uses this rhetoric so much, we believe it. Politics not by principle nor by interest, but politics as good conversation, where good is defined by the norms of academic debate in the ideal. It is as if the intellectual culture of the University of Chicago has come to Washington.
Second, Obama seems completely sincere in his proclamation that he has enough on his plate dealing with two wars, a health care crisis, the need to improve education, bring us energy independence, and deal with a potential pandemic to also want take over the economy. He told everyone last night that he would have loved nothing more than to have come into office and not had to deal with the economic crisis, but had he not dealt with it as he did, we would have faced the collapse of the entire financial system. Government had to take over the banks and had to take over the auto-industry. But his goal, he assured us, is to return the banks and the automobile companies to the private sector as quickly as possible. Again, the rhetoric is reasonable, but also stresses the sense of urgency and responsibility with which the actions were taken. Perhaps the debate couldn't go on much longer because the need for action was immediate. So even a reasonable person will cut off discussion and move to act based on the best information available to him. If he didn't act as he has these first 100 days, to the best of his knowledge we would be in a much worse situation than we are with respect to the economy. So perhaps the University of Chicago culture cannot quite make it to Washington --- at least the arguments of Chicago economists such as Cochrane or Zingales or Mulligan or Murphy or Becker.
Third, this does raise a broader issue about the relationship between ideological blinders and pragmatic politics --- either of the interest group or debate club variety. When I was writing my book The Political Economy of Soviet Socialism: The Formative Years, 1918-1928, I framed my contribution as bringing the economic way of thinking into a dispute among historians on whether the excesses of the War Communism period (1918-1921) were due to ideology or expediency, and whether the instability of NEP was due to the internal logic of interventionism or opportunism on the part of Stalin. The historical narrative I presented was one in which an ideology confronts a refactory reality. The tragedy of the Soviet Union was indeed due to an ideology, but we only come to know the "tragedy" of it because of the logic of economics that points out that this particular ideology cannot possible achieve what it sets out to achieve in this reality. The tragedy is instead the unintended and undesirable consequence of policy steps. But to the leaders who acted in 1917 and 1918, and in 1921, and again in 1928 (and along the way) their decisions were filtered through the ideological lens of Marxism. There was revolutionary sincerity on the part of Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Stalin, etc. There was opportunistic politics as well, but those opportunities presented themselves precisely because the sincere belief system failed to achieve its goals and thus failure required explanation and action. In short, ideology frames what is considered expedient. And expedience is what is considered "reasonable" in a time of crisis.
I think our current policy path proves this interaction thesis once again. The economists who have been studying our financial mess closest to those in power are sincere when they argue that had we not acted policy wise the way we have we would have faced financial ruin as a country (and perhaps world-wide). They sincerely believe the steps taken then and now are the only reasonable steps to deal with the crisis. But what if they are wrong? They are wrong, the argument goes, because their analytical frame of reference (the set of eyeglasses they are wearing to "read" the crisis) is wrong. So rather than fixing the crisis, they in fact are creating the crisis. Is this debate taking place vigorously inside the Obama White House?
Finally, how sincere does one believe the claim that the US government wants to return the banking system and the auto-industry to the private sector as quickly as possible really is?
Whatever doubts one might have, one must admit that to egg-heads the professorial style that Obama adopts and the ease with which he speaks to us is pretty effective that he is a man of "reason" and not ideological emotions run amock all the while his administration is engaged in a series of hyperactive ideological moves to transform the US economy. Obama is masterful in his rhetoric, but the consequences will be devastating in reality if the mainline of economic thinking (from Adam Smith to F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman) is the more accurate portrayal of reality. The most ambitous ideological dreams do run afoul of a refractory reality.